July 2011 posts
COWBOYS AND ALIENS (2011/IN THEATERS) Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens, which premiered last week at ComicCon in San Diego and opens today in mega-release, takes a while to get going and will make you utter “good grief” more than once at its often ridiculous plot and dialog but ultimately is a really good time as an old-fashioned western with some sci-fi thrown in. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are solid as rocks in their respective roles as “bad guy with a good heart” Jake Lonergan and “former Civil War colonel/crusty rancher“ Woodrow Dolarhyde. If you’ve seen the trailer (and honestly how could you have missed it?), you’ll know that the movie opens with Lonergan waking up in 1875 New Mexico territory sporting no memory, no shoes, a giant wound and a weird metal cuff on his wrist. Three menacing cowboys ride up and soon Longergan not only has their boots, clothes and guns, he has a horse and a dog and is heading toward Absolution (the town, not the event). Here the plot will introduce us to Dolarhyde’s wayward son (Paul Dano), the town sheriff (Keith Carradine), a beautiful and mysterious young woman (Olivia Wilde), the town’s doctor and barkeep (Sam Rockwell) and an invasion by aliens—say what?! Here we go. Along the way, director Jon Favreau manages to fit in everything but the kitchen sink as well as every classic western line you remember. Stop groaning and just enjoy the ride. And remember–the second half does get better.
BTW: I am a big Jon Favreau fan. We all know him as the director of Elf, Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and most of us remember his awesome performance in Swingers which he wrote for his best bud Vince Vaughn, but did you ever catch his TV series Dinner for Five (2001-2005)? In it, he hosted four of his Hollywood colleagues every week to a fine dinner where they talked shop or just talked. Great fun. For a sample, catch this YouTube of Eddie Izzard (with Will Ferrell) discussing what “trans-gender” means in one episode.
ON LOCATION: Cowboys and Aliens was shot almost entirely near the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This is Georgia O’Keefe country and is well worth your visit next time you’re out west. And be sure to check out Plaza Blanca, where the final battle for this movie was shot.
I am actually going to review a somewhat new movie. With the conclusion of the NASA Shuttle program, America is faced with a gap in its intrigue that has not been there since Yuri Gagarin. With no more launches of American manned craft for the foreseeable future, we have to look back to see the wonder and excitement of space travel. Along with The Wonder of It All, Shadow shows the story of the Apollo Space Program as told through the Apollo astronauts themselves. From great men like Buzz Aldrin a.k.a. Dr. Rendezvous, Gene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Duke, Jim Lovell; we see the guts that it took not only from them but from engineers and the American public to push ourselves beyond our planetary boundaries to send the only other humans to walk on another planetary body.
Where this documentary is better, than its contemporaries and predecessors, is that they got use of NASA archived footage and not just the stock footage that had been used in every space movie ever created before. From original camera footage from Apollo 8‘s first orbit of the moon, to the main rocket assembly floating in space and the footage of the capsule taking off and spinning back toward earth. Most of the shots are incredible, and the interviews are incredibly uplifting and inspiring. The fact that the captain of Apollo 17 and last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, says he was angry that he did not get to fly fighter jets in Vietnam but had to sit on top of a rocket that would be propelled faster than a bullet to the blackness of space, shows you the huevos that these men had to go where no man had gone before.
In recent days, this movie carries more weight of asking the question, when do we go back? With current politics and the constant struggle NASA for funding now that the Cold War is long over, for now we will not even being returning to orbit. Those stories are for Russia and China now, we will just be sending our astronauts out to their launch pads with thumbs held out looking to hitch a ride to outer space. In the Shadow of the Moon reminds us of when there was a time that dreams were not somethings we shrugged our shoulders at and moved on, however they were challenges to not just show up a rival but better ourselves in the process. In the meantime, us dorks will have to settle for Star Trek and Battlestar…what their all canceled, SON OF A…
Based on a beloved book by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version introduces us to the main character (Barney) through a series of memories sparked by a policeman’s book which paints a less than favorable view of his life, complete with an accused murder of his best friend. If you’ve seen the preview (which you can catch here), you’ll already know that Barney is a crusty, feisty, very Jewish guy who lives in Montreal, drinks a lot, smokes cigars and comes off as an incredibly self-centered individual. Yet the filmmakers and Giamatti (along with the incredibly strong supporting performances surrounding him) make us really care for this guy, who by the end of the film is suffering from Alzheimer’s and fading from view. The story deals with Barney’s life and specifically his three wives, all convincingly cast: Rachelle Lefevre is the hippy wife (no.1), Minnie Driver is the Jewish Princess (wife no.2), and Rosamond Pike is Miriam–wife no.3—and the love of his life. Also wonderful is Dustin Hoffman as Izzy Panovsky, Barney’s ex-cop dad and a real friend to him. Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his performance and the film, directed by Richard J. Lewis, was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2010 Venice International Film Festival. Well worth watching, even if, like me, you’ve never read any of Richler’s fiction.
Watch for: Cameos by famous Canadian directors Atom Egoyan (early director of Barney’s soap opera Constable O’Malley of the North), David Cronenberg (later director of Barney’s soap), Paul Gross (star in Barney’s soap), Denys Arcand (Jean, the maître d’ at both of Barney & Miriam’s luncheons beside the duck pond at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton), and Ted Kotcheff (train conductor).
“…for people who are interested in where their news comes from, and what the craft of journalism is all about, I think this movie provides a really interesting window into that process.” So says Andrew Rossi, the Director, Cinematographer and Co-Writer of this fascinating documentary; Rossi was granted 14 months of unfettered access to the Media Desk of the New York Times as well as to its editorial “Page One” meetings which occur twice a day. While he was there filming, the very future of the NYT was being widely debated as its advertising revenue continued to fall dramatically and serious competition from other online news outlets (think Huffington Post) was sky-rocketing. The Atlantic famously published its article entitled “End Times” discussing the reality of life without the NYT. The Media Desk at the Times (created in 2008) was assigned to cover the story of the future of newsprint, online newsmedia and everything in between. And so we meet Bruce Headlam, Editor of the Media Desk; Brian Stelter, former blogger and wunderkind assigned to new media for the Times; and David Carr, crusty traditional journalist and the real “star” of the show. In addition, we join daily meetings with Bill Keller, who was then Executive Editor (he ended his 8 year tenure in that post in May to resume full-time writing) and his team of senior editors while they discuss and decide what will make it into tomorrow’s paper and importantly, what will appear on Page One. It’s nothing glamorous and looks like a ton of work, but that’s the point—at least, it was for me. Journalism continues, no matter its format, and happily for us, the NYT continues, both in print and online.
Note: The film really does bounce around and has been called “a mess” by at least one reviewer. Among the stories covered (and which occurred while Rossie was filming) are the introduction of the iPad, Wikileaks, and the fall of Sam Zell’s Tribune empire–Carr’s article “Tales of a Bankrupt Culture” is shown as contributing to that eventuality.
More for Chicagoans: Roger Ebert equates Carr with Mike Royko– which has to be some of the highest praise possible in the news world. To think I started reading him when he covered the Oscars as “The Carpetbagger!” Gotta love him.
The Murdoch Connection: There really isn’t one, but as I was watching Bill Keller questioning stories in those “Page One” meetings, I became even more convinced that the “we knew nothing” stances of News Corp senior staff are full of holes, to say the least. For Carr’s take, read this article.
Lets jump in the ole time machine, and go back to an innocent time that was known as the nineties. During this time, the public had a huge fascination with a certain writer name Stephen King. His books and film adaptations had become loved by millions of people. This gave TV studios the idea of taking anything that they could get their hands on and try adapting it into the dreaded TV Mini-Series. This was first done with IT, and with its success, ABC clamored to get their hands on as many King titles as possible. This resulted in interpretations of The Tommyknockers, The Stand, and The Shinning. However, there was one more that was done between the Stand and the Shinning, this was the Langoliers.
The plot is that of a group of passengers who find themselves alone on a flight from L.A. to Boston, and when they noticed that all of the other passengers have disappeared, they begin to piece together the mystery. For the majority of the mini-series, they hear and see the destruction of the unknown entities coming to get them called the Langoliers. As with many of these mini-series, they are points where careers are born, others die, and some just stay unknown. The notable beginning was with David Morse, but actress Patricia Wettig would be relegated nothing but TV work afterwards. This also saw the last notable appearance of Bronson Pinchot. Then there is Dean Stockwell and Frankie Faison, both are actors that pop up all over the place, but never seem to land a strong recurring part. That is until Stockwell got a role on Battlestar Gallactica.
This movie teeters between horribly awesome and just horrible for most of its entirety. The acting is not good at all; the storyhas obvious gaping holes that even a two part series couldn’t cover; and when the final reveal is shown of the dreaded Langoliers, the special effects are so bad that it is entirely unbelievable. Now one can make the excuse, back in 1995 there weren’t the leaps forward in CGI that we have today. I saw this when it premiered on TV and it was bad for back then, Sesame Street had better special effects and acting. To give you an idea of how ridiculous the series is at times, there is a scene where the antagonist, Pinchot, is about to attack one of the supporting characters when he is hit in the head with a toaster being swung in a sling. It take three blows to knock him down. They would have us believe that it take three swings of a five pound toaster to take down Balki Bartokomous. In all seriousness, it should only take one. This is one of thousand reasons that this movie is not just bad but horrible, and it takes a very forgiving mind to find some awesomeness within. However, it may just be horrible without any awesomeness.
Come join us for a discussion of the trailers we’ve been privileged to experience over the last month or so. Are they tantalizing nuggets of the hits of tomorrow? Or harbingers of Green Lanterns to come? We do not know! But we will assume that we do, because it is our way. Have YOU seen a trailer lately? Do tell. In the Comments, please—we can’t hear you from our cubicles.
Kimberly: Sarah! After our thwarted attempt to watch alien teens on jet skis in I Am Number Four and a successful (“successful”) solo viewing of The Road last night, I am ready for a romantic comedy that does nothing more than make me feel unattractive and poor! How about What’s Your Number? A Marie Claire cover line, brought to glorious life by Anna Faris (recent subject of a adoring New Yorker article) and featuring Joel McHale (why do I find it so distressing when he kisses girls?), Chris Pratt (awesomesauce), and Captain America wearing a hoodie without a top underneath at the 1:57 mark and wielding a Stratocaster like a true shredder at 2:13. Hm, that is a lot of awkward narration. And a really gross OB/GYN joke. I think we have a free Redbox rental on our hands.
BUCK (2011/IN THEATERS) Buck Brannaman served as one of three men who inspired Nicholas Evan’s novel “The Horse Whisperer” and was Robert Redford’s stand-in and technical adviser for the 1998 film (which featured a very young Scarlett Johansson). Brannaman himself is the focus of this 2011 Sundance Audience Award Winning Documentary and whether you are a horse person or not, he is well worth your time and money. A nice change from the summer’s action flicks and a terrific alternative to a Harry Potter dominated weekend, I highly recommend this independent film—if you can find it showing somewhere near you. It’s only 88 minutes long and by the end, as another reviewer said, you’ll feel like you have a “new friend.” Redford says in the movie that Brannaman is the “real deal.” A true American cowboy, as a child Buck–along with his brother–was a blind-folded performing trick-roper under the thumb of a demanding and cruel father. Luckily for young Buck, a high school football coach noticed the signs of daily beatings and removed the two boys to a western home for youngsters. There Brannaman blossomed and eventually found his true calling as a master horseman and trainer. He makes his living traveling around the states giving workshops on horse training skills, including gentling colts or difficult animals. The film, which is visually stunning, follows him to a series of working locations and shows us the magic.
Evans called him “the Zen master of the horse world.” Brannaman says at the start of the film, “Rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” Oddly enough, those childhood beatings made Brannaman better understand those horses who have been subjected to training via the whip or worse, and he has created a quiet way to communicate with and essentially bond with the animals. He never lays a finger on them—just a flag. You’ll be amazed watching him. In fact that’s how the documentary came to be—Cindy Meehl, a first-time director, met Brannaman at a training session eight years ago and determined to make this movie. I particularly enjoyed his dry wit and wisdom and his calm ways. The film mirrors all this, with a steady and lovely pace about it. A good one to add to your NetFlix list—that is, if you aren’t too mad at them!
BTW: Check out this interesting back story to the film from the LA Times.
NOTE: Be sure to watch the credits long enough to hear Buck’s favorite joke, as told by his elderly foster mother. Pretty cute!
Very few documentaries can show the importance of one event, this is one of them. When We Were Kings tells the story of the Heavyweight Championship Fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman, otherwise know as the Rumble in the Jungle. The fight took place in Kinshasa, Zaire as part of publicity for President Mobutu. Produced/Directed/Edited by Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford, this documentary is a fascinating look into not only the background of a boxing match, but the lasting importance of a moment like this one.
The film was set to be released following the fight, to provide even more revenue, however the film rights were contested by the financiers of the project. This lasted until the early nineties when the matter was settled out of court. In that time, Ali had retired after several more fights, Foreman was in the midst of his second run at a heavyweight belt. People profiled in the movie like Don King had risen and were falling at the time of the movie. And the politics in Zaire had shown what type of leader Mobutu was. By forcing the film to wait over twenty years to be released, this movie won best documentary Oscar.
As mentioned above, the film profiles Don King in his first high profile promotion. It also displays the brief dominance and fall of George Foreman from the Heavyweight Championship. Mobutu and his changes to Zaire at the time are examined, and all through reflective interviews from those who were there. Most importantly, the film chronicles the moment that Ali became “The Greatest”.
This moment and film had such an influence, that this story is the basis of Michael Mann‘s Ali. Which is just a fictionalized account of the documentary that is no where near as good. When We Were Kings is not only one of the best sports documentaries of all time, but one of the best documentaries in general.
How clever are the team of writers and filmmakers who brought us X-Men: First Class this year? They made sure to tie their offering to the best of the X-Men movies. Indeed they even open their film with identical sequences from the original X-Men showing 1944 WWII Poland and the young Eric Lensherr as he moves the metal gates at the concentration camp to try to reach his parents. Same shots, same lighting, almost same ending–Eric hit in the head by a Nazi guard, lying in the mud and rain. Of course, in the new film, which focuses on young Eric (as well as young Charles Xavier), we see evil Kevin Bacon, watching from a window and taking careful note. If, like me, you’ve largely forgotten the original film from 2000, it is worth renting and viewing again but you might find yourself somewhat disappointed—that is, unless you’re a Wolverine fan, in which case you’ll be happy. Because the first film is not centered around Magneto and Professor X, but rather around Hugh Jackman and the Logan/Wolverine character. Don’t get me wrong. We’re definitely introduced to the wheelchair bound Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who runs his School for Talented Youngsters (read Mutants) in Westchester, NY, just as always, but now with an elaborate underground of laboratories. We also meet the grown-up Eric as Magneto (Ian McKellan), this film’s villain, with his island-based facility featuring the capability to transform normal humans into mutants. Aiding Professor X are Halle Berry as Storm, Famke Janssen as Dr. Jean Grey and James Marsden as Cyclops. The other side’s most impressive and notable mutant is Mystique, in blue with yellow eyes (just as in “First Class”), but this time portrayed by Rebecca Romijn. But these are all side characters in the film which focuses mostly on Anna Paquin as Rogue, a young teen whose power allows her to “steal capabilities” from fellow mutants and as mentioned earlier, Jackman as Wolverine, who begins the film as a bit of a jerk (make that, total jerk) but by the end is her friend, hero and savior. I won’t spend any time on the plot–rent the movie if you can’t remember it–but suffice it to say, you must like Jackman to like this film. Which explains my disappointment–since I much prefer focusing on Professor X and Magneto and the excellent actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and much, much prefer focusing altogether on this year’s leading men, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Enough said.
BEGINNERS (2010/IN THEATERS)
First shown at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, this sweet—make that bittersweet—indie movie is based on the real-life story of its writer and director, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), whose father (Hal), at the age of 75, “came out” as a gay man after 45 years of marriage to Mills’ mother (she had died the year before). Christopher Plummer is sure to garner an Oscar nod for his fabulous portrayal of Hal—the father in question–living and loving to the max at long last even when cancer makes its appearance and ultimately claims his life 5 years later. Ewan McGregor is Oliver, Hal’s only son, a seriously reserved young man who is observing life from a distance. Oliver is incredibly supportive of his father right to the bitter end but has trouble finding and more importantly, keeping, love himself. In flashbacks and clever “snapshots,” Oliver shows us his life as a young boy, complete with a “mother who wanted to be Humphrey Bogart” (portrayed by a striking Mary Page Keller) as he says in an interview and a father who is quietly loving but not really there. Hal’s new, active gay life–complete with a move-in, handsome lover Andy (Goran Višnjić)–is a revelation to Oliver and shows him the beauty of actively loving someone. About a month after Hal’s death, Oliver meets Mélanie Laurent (the cinema owner in Inglorious Basterds) as Ana, a gorgeous and kind of strange young French woman, who is his perfect counterpart and away we go with the other piece of this movie puzzle. The film uses loads of cuts and “clever” devices to interweave all these stories and timelines, and could have been too cute for its own good, but yet, thanks to beautiful performances from all the main characters, you’ll find yourself sucked in and wishing the best for all. A few tears might appear as well. They did for me.
Grade: A- Oliver’s constant state of temerity can get seriously old.
Also: The dog (Hal’s Jack Russell) does truly steal much of the show. They do it every time! This one is even given captions!
Be sure to catch: A great Fresh Air interview from Terry Gross with Mike Mills is here. He offers a view into the real life that inspired the film.